Peter Oborne

Guilty by association

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Account Rendered

Roger Gough, Stuart McCracken and Andrew Tyrie

Biteback, pp. 400, £

It has become increasingly obvious that something went terribly wrong with British intelligence-gathering, both its methods and morality, after the destruction of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.

Earlier prime ministers had displayed scruples about the use of intelligence gained from torture. But during the Blair premiership this changed. Britain became part of a nightmarish universe where the standards which we claim to represent were undermined and sabotaged.

It is important to stress that there is no evidence at all that our intelligence officers were (unlike their gung-ho counterparts at the CIA) directly engaged in torture. But there is a great deal of evidence that we despatched terrorist suspects to countries where we knew that they would be tortured, and that we coached the torturers about the right questions to ask and gave them the information they needed.

The nature and extent of British involvement remains, however, a matter of speculation. This is in part because British Cabinet ministers have repeatedly covered up and misled parliament when the subject has been raised.

In 2005 Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, came out with the following statement:

Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States and also, let me say, that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop.

These words had to be ‘corrected’ three years later by Straw’s successor David Miliband, as evidence of British involvement in rendition (defined by the authors of this book as the ‘the involuntary transfer of an individual across borders without recourse to extradition or deportation proceedings’) became irrefutable.

The Security and Intelligence Committee, set up to monitor the intelligence services, has been toothless and weak, consistently supplied with inadequate information by the security services, and not appearing to mind that the Gibson Enquiry — belatedly set up to investigate torture claims — moves at a funereal pace, is hopelessly compromised and ought to be wound up. One of its members, Peter Riddell, quietly resigned from its three-man committee last month, a decision he is unlikely to regret. Recently, the collapse of the pro-Western Gaddafi regime in Libya has opened up a new dimension on British involvement in the kidnap and torture of terror suspects.

So this short book is timely. Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative backbencher, has been following the subject for at least five years and is currently, in pursuit of the truth, suing the US State Department, the CIA, the FBI and the Foreign Office in an attempt to extract information which can cast light on one of the most troubling periods of recent British history.

Account Rendered provides very little fresh information, but has done something every bit as valuable. Tyrie has put together a rigorous analysis of the state of public knowledge, along with a compilation of documents already in the public domain. He rightly includes the infamous ‘torture memos’ offering guidance about the legality of interrogation techniques.

Here is an extract from the US Justice Department guidance on the interrogation of the al-Qa’eda suspect, Abu Zubaydah:

You have orally informed us that you would not deprive Zubaydah of sleep for more than 11 days at a time and that you have previously kept him awake for 72 hours, from which no mental or physical harm resulted. You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect …We find that the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death …

Indeed Zubaydah was to be waterboarded (drowned and brought back to consciousness) no less than 83 times. The DOJ raised no serious objections.

It is now well established that the US turned its back on the rule of law and reverted to barbarism in the wake of the 9/11 attack. The question is: to what extent did the United Kingdom follow suit? How widespread was British complicity in torture? What was the degree of ministerial knowledge? Was British complicity personally sanctioned, as seems most likely, by Tony Blair? What is the truth about the role of Diego Garcia, the remote Indian Ocean island, administered by the British but allegedly home to a US ‘black site’, used for the detention and torture of suspected terrorists?

This excellent and scrupulous book cannot answer these questions. But it provides the context for them to be posed. The authors have performed an enormous public service by writing it.